Tag Archives: small emotional observations

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

Rereading novels by Elizabeth Taylor is my indulgence. This one I read and reviewed on Bookword blog nearly ten years ago. I must admit that I have enjoyed it less than her other novels. The characters seem rather pathetic, which is hinted at by the title, two people forever missing each other. But as an exercise in following characters for nearly twenty years it demonstrates Elizabeth Taylor’s versatility as a writer. Both In a Summer Season and A Wreath of Roses take place over a span of weeks. This novel begins in the early thirties and ends in the fifties, after the Second World War.

A Game of Hide and Seek

Harriet and Vesey spend time together during childhood. Caroline is Vesey’s aunt, and he goes to stay with her every summer. Caroline is also the best friend of Harriet’s mother, and they live near each other. Harriet has taken on some light secretarial and childcare responsibilities for Caroline so she cycles there every day. Harriet’s mother, Lilian, was imprisoned as a Suffragette and met Caroline as they faced their sentences together. Theirs is a glorious past, but Harriet is almost indifferent to her mother’s achievements. She does not see herself as brave as the previous generation.

Vesey is in a perpetual state of not knowing what he should be doing or what his future will be. His father has abandoned his mother, and she is happy for him to be out of the way of her London business during the summer. Vesey is always a little sickly, not a sportsman, nor an intellectual. The two young people are uncertain and shy in each other’s company. 

The two of them go for walks together, rather uncertainly. And they play hide and seek with Caroline’s two children. One day they go to a deserted house, and they have a rather hurried embrace in the empty bedroom before the younger children disturb them. At the end of the summer, Vesey goes up to Oxford and Harriet’s dreary social round continues. Vesey does not keep in touch.

Harriet takes a job in a shop selling gowns. Some of the best scenes in the novel come from this part of her life, as the more experienced women try to educate her in the ways of the world. 

Harriet’s virginity they marvelled over a great deal. It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly asking after it, as if it were a sick relative. It must not be bestowed lightly, they advised. It must not be bestowed at all, Miss Brimpton said. It was a possession, not a state; was positive, not negative. (61)

Harriet meets and is courted by Charles, ‘an elderly man of about thirty-five’. He is a solicitor. He is very sensible and well-regarded, and partly because his mother is a former actress, and very actressy, he is not very dramatic. Eventually Charles and Harriet marry, and they have a daughter, Besty. 

The relationship between Harriet and Vesey is sustained on and off over the decades. He joins the army during the war. After the war he becomes an actor in a touring company and comes to perform at a theatre near Harriet in Buckinghamshire. The relationship between Charles and Harriet is strained, and Vesey and Harriet continue to fail to commit to each other. Betsy develops her own crush on Vesey and eventually is convinced that he is her father. Harriet and Vesey meet in London, or he visits her house in the afternoon. 

As always, Elizabeth Taylor is brilliant at revealing the small emotional ripples between people, the shift in mood in a room, the moment when someone fears they will give themselves away. In this scene, for example, it is the evening after Harriet has spent an afternoon with Vesey in the park and she is thinking about it as she sews. Charles is reading Persuasion.

As he read, he passed his hand over his hair, with the impatient quick gesture Harriet knew. His hair was greying but, as with many fair people, without much altering his appearance. At irregular intervals, he turned pages; once or twice he glanced at the fire, but never at his wife. Harriet sat still, and wary. Her needle plucked at the cloth. However hard she tried to concentrate on her task, the blue park with its blurred vistas rose before her, its magic engulfed her as if it were the park she was in love with. When Charles turned a page, her eyelids lowered, her mouth tightened. She wondered if he were reading the chapter on women’s constancy; for the book became a reproach all by itself. (155-6)

There is a splendid cast of secondary characters: Caroline and her husband, Hugo; their children; Charles and his friends Tiny and Kitty; a very clumsy Dutch maid; the local woman who comes and ‘does’; the other women in the dress shop; Betsy’s teacher and her school friend. The children are especially well observed, but every character is believable and reflects everyday life, and draws attention to the strained relationship between Vesey and Harriet. The ending is somewhat ambiguous.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1951. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1986, with an Introduction by Elizabeth Jane Howard. 260pp

The first review of A Game of Hide and Seek on this blog was posted in August 2013. You can find it here. I have reviewed all her fiction on Bookword blog, and I am currently rereading the novels.

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